A reader asks:
I am asking your opinion on a point I use to defend the Immaculate Conception. It is common for Protestants to appeal to Rom 3:23– “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God”. Therefore, they say, Mary has sinned too and come short of the glory of God. Due to the past tense usage –”have sinned”–appealing to the preventive grace Mary received does no good. (Or is that too quick?) In fact, the passage seems to suggest that no one has received any preventitive grace. So, my typical reply is to ask whether there are any exceptions to the “all” that Paul expects his reader to understand and take into account. The answer is obviously yes, Jesus Christ. So, knowing that there is at least one exception to the “all” in Rom 3:23, we ask whether there is Scriptural reason for thinking that there are any other. The answer there, too, is yes, for Mary is called kecharitomene AS A PROPER NAME in Lk. 1:28. The fullness of grace implies that she is without sin, and the grammatical structure of the word kecharitomene means that she is without sin both extensively and intensively. So, unless it be conceded that Mary, too, is an exception to Rom 3:23, there is a contradiction in Scripture between Rom 3:23 and Lk 1:28. My question is, Mark, in you opinion, is this the best reply?
You touch on some points that I would also touch on, but it’s not quite my approach. The problem that faces every Protestant in dealing with some Catholic teaching he does not accept is how to show that it is antibiblical. It’s not enough to show that a doctrine is merely extrabiblical since lots of Protestant sacred cows are extrabiblical too, but still held (rightly) as non-negotiable features of Christian belief. (I detail a few of these here.) Protestants often think they’ve found something anti-biblical in the Immaculate Conception but, for the reasons you show, this ain’t so. Paul’s use of language is fairly loosey goosey and is difficult to force into mathematical and geometric crystals of Exactitude. So, yeah, sure. Paul says “All have sinned.” Protestants, bent on denying Marian doctrine put gobs of weight on this (“All means ALL!!!!!”) but then have to deal with the reality that all doesn’t really mean “Every last human being in the universe” since that includes Jesus (and newborn infants). They also have to deal with Paul’s other usages of “All” which they don’t want to weight so heavily (“God has handed all over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on all.” “God who is the savior of all men, especially of those who believe” etc.) Most of the people who want Paul to mean “Everybody is guilty of actual sin, ESPECIALLY MARY!” don’t want him to mean “All will be saved.” They have good reason for that. Paul doesn’t mean every last person will be saved. He means “all” in a broad sense, not in a mathematical one. But he means that in all these cases.
So there’s no particularly strong biblical reason to say that the Immaculate Conception is false on biblical grounds. Which leaves us with the Tradition of the Church. And the Tradition of the Church is very strong (even with the great Doctor of Original Sin, Augustine himself) that Mary is somehow sinless. How that is, the early Church father don’t know. *That* it is is a broad consensus that only strengthens with the passage of time. So you have to ask (again) how seriously are you going to take Sacred Tradition to inform your reading of Scripture. If you take it seriously, there’s no big obstacle to the doctrine in Scripture. If you take the recent (last 300 years) obsession in Protestantism with denying Mary pretty much all honor, you’ll emphasize passage like Rom 3:23 far beyond anything Paul ever intended to specifically attack Mary’s sinlessness. Course, you’ll then have to explain why you retain other aspects of Sacred Tradition.
Some folks think there’s a huge significance to the fact that the Eastern Church has no doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. But that turns out to be cold comfort for Protestant Mariophobes. For the East is, if anything, even more devoted to Mary as the Sinless Mother of God than the West. However, the East never developed a doctrine of original sin as the west did. Because of this, there was never a big push to try to figure out *how* she could be sinless. It was just accepted that she is. The west hammered out the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception precisely to explain how “all have sinned” and yet Mary is sinless. Protestants who turn to the East looking for a friend in their opposition to the Immaculate Conception will be told that they are too Augustinian in their emphasis on the original sin and then they will be told that they are heretics for denying that Mary is “Panagia”–”All Holy”.
Nope, it the Protestant denial of Mary’s sinlessness that’s the new kid on the block. It’s Protestantism that has the explaining to do, not the ancient apostolic faith.